David Foster Wallace’s fancy style

Below is an excerpt from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s interesting review in GQ of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King (actually a review of DFW himself). When he speaks of “plain” writing, Sullivan apparently is alluding to Annie Dillard’s distinction, in her book Living by Fiction (reviewed on this blog), between “fine” and “plain” writing. She admires both but seems to prefer plain, the category into which her own lyric style falls, and to consider it the appropriate modern and postmodern response to a senseless, fractured world.

Sullivan on Wallace:

 The “plain style” is about erasing yourself as a writer and laying claim to a kind of invisible narrative authority, the idea being that the writer’s mind and personality are manifest in every line, without the vulgarity of having to tell the reader it’s happening. But Wallace’s relentlessly first-person strategies didn’t proceed from narcissism, far from it—they were signs of philosophical stubbornness. (His father, a professional philosopher, studied with Wittgenstein’s last assistant; Wallace himself as an undergraduate made an actual intervening contribution—recently published as Fate, Time, and Language—to the debate over free will.) He looked at the plain style and saw that the impetus of it, in the end, is to sell the reader something. Not in a crass sense, but in a rhetorical sense. The well-tempered magazine feature, for all its pleasures, is a kind of fascist wedge that seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths, and arbitrary decisions, and swallow its nonexistent imprimatur. Wallace could never exempt himself or his reporting from the range of things that would be subject to scrutiny.

Sullivan resumes:

His voice was regional in more than one sense—the fastidiousness about usage, for instance. Only midwesterners will waste time over the grammar of small talk with you; nowhere else, when you ask, “Can I get an iced tea?,” does anyone ever say, “I don’t know…can you?” And Wallace did think of himself as in some ways a regional writer—else he’d never have let the über-author photographer Marion Ettlinger take the well-known trench-coat-lion shot of him smiling wryly beside a waving cornfield. He knew that he came, as he said in the essay he read that night, from a landscape “whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual.” The very “maximalism” of his style, which his detractors claimed to find self-indulgent, suggests an environment with space to fill. . . .

He’s maybe the only notoriously “difficult” writer who almost never wrote a page that wasn’t enjoyable, or at least diverting, to read. Yet it was the theme of loneliness, a particular kind of postmodern, information-saturated loneliness, that, more than anything, drew crowds to his readings who looked in size and excitement level more like what you’d see at an in-store for a new band. Many of Wallace’s readers (this is apparent now that every single one of them has written an appreciation of him somewhere on the Internet) believed that he was speaking to them in his work—that he was one of the few people alive who could help them navigate a new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation had been nullified.


Filed under modernism/postmodernism, NOTED, style, syntax

9 responses to “David Foster Wallace’s fancy style

  1. What a great post! It makes me think of the style difference between the effervescent Virginia Woolf and the “transparent” style of George Orwell. Plain style may seem easier to write and to read, but there can be a lot going on behind its deceptive simplicity. As for David Foster Wallace and others who write in a less straightforward way, as long as they never stray into exhibitionism it is always delighful to read their prose. By the way, like many Liverpudlians, I prefer The Stones to The Beatles hence I did not comment on that interesting & pleasant post.
    Thanks as ever,

  2. Thanks, John. I love the fine vs. plain discussions. Since like most writers I’m working the more plain end of the scale—most writers have, since Hemingway—I am fascinated with fine writers, like Woolf.

    Ah, the Stones are great but I remain a Beatles guy, ever true.

  3. Pat

    Great discussion…not so sure it is only Midwest where they will ask “can you” I have found that in the East coast too

  4. Another great post, Richard and thanks for linking to the Dillard one, too. I teach a style course to undergrads, so much appreciated!

  5. Richard Moore

    Richard: another great post, on a subject with many dimensions. Pardon me for being obtuse, but I don’t see how Dillard’s uber-lyrical style can be called plain. If it is, I don’t understand “fancy.” Does it relate to arcane, mysterious, tangential?

    I particularly identified with the reviewer’s success in placing DFW’s writing in the grim socio-cultural context of modernism-post modernism. I am currently working on a piece about the “evolution” of modern art, and the impact of a “senseless, fractured world” on the mind set of artists. I was excited to perceive what seem to be the linkage between the crowds that flock to conceptual art exhibitions at museums and “. . .the theme of loneliness, a particular kind of postmodern, information-saturated loneliness, that, more than anything, drew crowds to his readings.”


    • Thanks, Richard. Well, plain is kind of a lousy word because of its connotation. You have to read that Dillard book to understand. Lately I am coming to think it’s all about the writer’s persona: dominating, show-offy, and amused; or submissive to the world, descriptive, wary.

      Sullivan is saying DFW acted like he thought the plain style was an insidious con job in its distillation. The fine style for him, according to Sullivan, was more honest because it exposed or revealed the writer’s ego.

      I think.

  6. Another thought-provoking post, Richard, thanks!
    Just to add to the plain/fancy or fine prose discussion, David Huddle in his book The Writing Habit has a piece called “Puttering in the Prose Garden: Prose Improvements for Fiction-Writers,” in which he describes four categories of prose: “basic prose”; “window-pane prose”; “personable prose”; and “mega-prose.” With examples. He thinks of them as being on an evolutionary scale of development. Maybe it isn’t what others mean as “plain” prose, I dunno, but I found it interesting…. Paulette

  7. Olga Khotiashova

    The other day I watched Charlie Rose’s show. Rose talked to Jim Collins about his new book Great by Choice (http://www.slashcontrol.com/free-tv-shows/charlie-rose/683213514-an-hour-with-jim-collins). I’m rather skeptical about business consulting but Collins’ bright and energetic personality made the show truly entertaining. When they began discussing the correlation between charisma and greatness, I thought the point was relevant to the topic of this post. Jim Collins regards great leaders as artists, so the process of creating a product or a company has essential similarities with that of painting a picture or writing a book. But in fact, Collins pointed out, charisma negatively correlate with leadership. Charismatic people are often self-absorbed. The key questions here are, “Where is ego directed? Why are they doing it?” Great leaders “are driven by the ambition to create something great that might last.” So their ego is directed not to themselves and not even to the creative process but to the final product.
    Annie Dillard wrote in Contemporary Prose Styles: “Contemporary modernist fine prose says, Look at my hand. Plain prose says, Look over there. But these are matters of emphasis. So long as words refer, the literary arts will continue to do two things at once, just as representational painting does two things at once. They point to the world with the hand. So long you write literature, you cannot unhinge the world from the words, nor the words from the page.”
    I thought there probably is some correlation between writer’s personality and his or her writing style like a charismatic writer tends to “fine” prose. Well, Hemingway doesn’t fit that pattern, but it is something to think about, I guess.

    • Very thoughtful and interesting, Olga. I agree Hemingway would seem a conundrum: in person, said to be macho, overbearing, violently competitive and dominating, yet his prose fits Dillard’s submissive plain style. Wallace was a real show-off on the page, but by most accounts meek in person.

      I do think style relates to persona, to the sort of ego projected on the page, a chosen act with artists. Hemingway had a bleak outlook and believed people will be broken by the world, by others; his solace was in nature. This philosophy seemed to suffuse his style. While in person he could be a bully, his constructed prose bows to the beauty and primacy of nature and to the conviction that heroic figures simply die sooner—but there’s nothing else to be: doomed, you take a stand.

      Wallace was a genius, I think, and while a tortured one his writing was joyous in the exercise of his smarts. I think he was growing into a spirituality far deeper than Hemingway’s, however, and that inner inquiry would have steadily changed his work and perhaps his style.